Church rallies to support those affected by Queensland fires

Bishop Michael McCarthy

Queensland’s devastating bushfires have seen Catholic communities throughout the Rockhampton Diocese scramble to assist one another during the ongoing emergency.

Rockhampton Bishop Michael McCarthy yesterday praised the heroic acts of fire and emergency service workers and volunteers, who have worked tirelessly to save lives and property.

“I’ve been here four-and-a-half years, and during that time there’s been two cyclones, a flood, an earthquake, severe drought in the west, which is still happening, and a catastrophic fire and plague of locusts in the west. So we’ve had all of the natural disasters that are named in the Bible,” Bishop McCarthy said.

The 10th bishop of the large central Queensland region first heard of the emergency devastating his diocese while in Sydney for the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference plenary meeting last week.

“I was sitting in the ACBC conference last Wednesday and my director of Catholic education and director of finance rang me, and then The Morning Bulletin (Rockhampton’s daily newspaper) flashed up that 8000 Gracemere residents, 10km from Rockhampton, were being evacuated that night,” Bishop McCarthy said.

“The airport in Rockhampton had closed because of smoke and winds and I decided to get on an early plane on Thursday and arrived here at lunchtime on Thursday. By the time I got here, 8000 had been evacuated.

“They were just told to go, because the fire had reached the edge of Gracemere. From the plane, I could see how close it had come – 2km from the edge of Gracemere.”

Bishop McCarthy said some evacuees went to relatives and friends, while others went to the Showgrounds. The Gracemere Gardens retirement village was evacuated and relocated to the Mater Hospital.

“On the Wednesday here, it was just horrific. The northwesterly wind was like the air coming out of the glass furnace; it was so hot. It was an oppressive day of hot wind and in the Australian bushland, you don’t need much hot air to spark the spontaneous ignition of the gum trees.”

Bishop McCarthy praised the way management and staff at the city’s Mater Hospital and Mercy Health and Aged Care responded to the evacuation emergency. He also paid tribute to the work of Catholic education leaders, including director Leesa Jeffcoat.

A number of Catholic schools were closed for at least a day as authorities sought to minimise movement around the region.

Some parts of the diocese – Sarina Beach, Eungella Ranges, Finch Hatton (near Mackay), Mount Larcom (near Gladstone) and around the Town of 1770, in the Deepwater and Baffle Creek areas (north of Bundaberg) – are still struggling with recurring and ongoing bushfires, Bishop McCarthy said Monday.

Mackay South and Pioneer Valley parish priest Fr Don White said the Eungella rainforest and farming lands had suffered significant damage.

“One house has been lost at Finch Hatton, but fortunately the firefighters and water bombers were able to prevent the fire from going into the township itself and destroying houses,” he told Media Blog Tuesday morning.

“We did have rain overnight and there was a storm in Eungella; we’re hoping that’s put the fires out there. The diocese itself has had a lot of natural disasters and this is the first time we have seen bush fires in that rainforest area. Some of those trees are 200 years old on the range and we’re not sure of the long-term impacts to the tourism industry.”

He said many of the Finch Hatton parishioners attended Mass at the town’s St Francis de Sales Church on Sunday and prayed for the firefighters and for rain.

“We’re just coming out of the response stage and the community will now go into the recovery phase. Plans are under way to work out how best to support those affected. Farming land has been lost as well as the rainforest – (sugar) cane farms have been damaged and one young man lost all of his stock feed,” Fr White said.

Last Wednesday, almost 140 bushfires were burning across Queensland, with authorities saying the conditions were like nothing they had ever seen.

“The real heroes here have been the emergency services and the police who did an incredible day of door-knocking and getting people moving on Wednesday,” Bishop McCarthy said.

“We are all indeed very lucky to have them.”

Bishop McCarthy said financial assistance was being arranged for those who had lost homes.